Yet Another Headache for the U.S. Auto Industry

Several Mexican drug cartels are very active along the U.S. border.
Several Mexican drug cartels are very active along the border -- and U.S. auto parts plants are getting caught in the crossfire.
Now here’s an interesting confluence of events that at first blush seem totally unrelated to each other: the U.S. automotive industry and the Mexican drug wars. As if the auto industry didn’t have enough problems on its hands, now it’s finding itself in the crosshairs of the Mexican drug cartels’ shootout with the government in towns along the U.S. border.

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico is a factory town that happens to have its share of U.S.-owned auto supply factories, drawn to the region by cheap labor rates averaging less than $1.50 per hour. Always a tough city, Juarez has gotten a lot more dangerous in recent months. The raging violence peaked several months back with drug gangs killing six police officers in one single week before the Mexican government sent military troops in.

Civilians and foreign nationals are also at risk, it turns out. In January, a plant manager for Detroit-based auto parts manufacturer Lear Corporation was kidnapped on his way to work in Juarez, and a $1 million ransom was demanded for his release. Shortly before this drama unfolded, the firm’s local facilities were attacked by a band of gunmen armed with assault weapons; reportedly, they were after employees’ Christmas bonuses plus proceeds from the plant’s ATM machine.

Auto parts maker Delphi has also reported a number of disturbing incidents, including the attempted kidnapping of one of its female executives.

So, in addition to being faced with a blizzard of bad news on the domestic front stemming from the collapse of automotive sales, the auto parts manufacturers are encountering an entirely different set of bad conditions on the border. In response, they’re taking special precautions, including adding more security (and vetting security personnel more carefully), removing ATMs from plants, restricting local personnel travel to daylight hours only, and even going so far as to keep their CEOs away from the region entirely.

But you can only wonder how much longer things can go on like this if the Mexican government doesn’t gain the upper hand in quelling the danger and the violence — and soon. After all, there are nearly 1,000 auto parts makers in the country, ~70% of which are subsidiaries of U.S. companies. That makes it very hard for the military to patrol so many locations against the seemingly random attacks, kidnappings, and other acts of violence.

At some point, the prospects of cheap labor and low costs will run smack up against basic safety, security and peace of mind. Other Latin American countries face similar issues … so might this mean a shift of some of these operations back to the United States? Now, that would be an interesting twist!

We shall see.

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